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Green jobs don't grow on trees.


As the fragile U.S. economy attempts to recover from one of the harshest recessions in history, many are touting green jobs as the best source of new jobs. In fact, national recognition of the need for a green employment sector started with the Energy Independence and Security Act, which passed in December 2007 and which incorporated the Green Jobs Act of 2007. The Green Jobs Act authorized "up to $125 million in funding to establish national and state job training programs, administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, to help address job shortages that are impairing growth in green industries, such as energy efficient buildings and construction, renewable electric power, energy efficient vehicles, and biofuels development" ("House Committee Passes Solis' Green Jobs Act" 2007). On January 8, 2010, President Barack Obama followed up on his campaign commitment to green jobs by announcing $2.3 billion in tax credits for the clean energy manufacturing sector in the hopes of creating 17,000 jobs (Pepitone 2010). This funding comes from the $787 billion American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and has been awarded to 183 projects in 43 states (Pepitone 2010).

As positive sounding as these announcements are, the biggest problem concerning green jobs seems to be that of definition. What exactly is a green job? Definitions vary according to their individual sources, and most are merely circular definitions that recycle the term "green" more than offering any substantial understanding. The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines green jobs as either:

A. Jobs in businesses that produce goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources.

B. Jobs in which workers' duties involve making their establishment's production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources. ("Measuring Green Jobs")

However, in its September 2008 report entitled Green Jobs: Towards Decent Work in a Sustainable, Low-Carbon World, the United Nations Environment Programme identified a green economy and green jobs as follows:
   In an ideal state of affairs, a green economy is one that does
   not generate pollution or waste and is hyper-efficient in its
   use of energy, water, and materials. Using this green utopia
   as a yardstick would mean that currently there are few,
   if any, green jobs. A more realistic, pragmatic approach is
   process-oriented rather than fixated on an ideal yet elusive
   end-state. In other words, green jobs are those that contribute
   appreciably to maintaining or restoring environmental
   quality and avoiding future damage to the Earth's ecosystems.

      We define green jobs as positions in agriculture, manufacturing,
   construction, installation, and maintenance,
   as well as scientific and technical, administrative, and
   service-related activities that contribute substantially to
   preserving or restoring environmental quality. Specifically,
   but not exclusively, this includes jobs that help to protect
   and restore ecosystems and biodiversity; reduce energy,
   materials, and water consumption through high-efficiency
   and avoidance strategies; decarbonize the economy; and
   minimize or altogether avoid generation of all forms of
   waste and pollution. But green jobs, as we argue below,
   also need to be good jobs that meet longstanding demands
   and goals of the labor movement, i.e., adequate wages, safe
   working conditions, and worker rights, including the right
   to organize labor unions. (35-36)

Ironically, the United Nations Environment Programme's insistence on jobs that "reduce energy," that implement "high-efficiency and avoidance strategies," as well as "decarbonize the economy" actually eliminates the United States' call for corn-based ethanol as a cornerstone of its green plan. In fact, Al Gore admits that the current U.S. policy of corn-based ethanol use is "not a good policy" (Wynn 2010). As earlier critics pointed out, Gore agrees that the U.S. ethanol industry consumed "about 41 percent of the U.S. corn crop" in 2010, which equals about 15 percent of the global corn crop (Wynn 2010). Such consumption adversely impacts food prices. Additionally, the means to produce corn-based ethanol is far more costly than the actual end benefits achieved from using corn-based ethanol (Meigs 2009). Therefore, corn-based ethanol as currently envisioned and utilized cannot be included as a green endeavor.

Still, the U.S. government, lobbyists, and the public demand green jobs. One question about this demand is, "How high tech or advanced should these green jobs be?" According to Anthony K. "Van" Jones, former Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, not very. The most high-tech piece of equipment would be a simple caulk gun, which would allow former blue-collar employees who have been laid off to be rehired in these green jobs (Mufson 2008). Also, the Green Economy Task Force in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has set out to create 15,000 green jobs by 2015, with the target green employee holding anything from a GED to a PhD, but the true target is for those employees closer to the GED rank (Mastrull 2009).

Unfortunately, lower wage is often associated with lower education and lower skill, which is in contrast to the past demand for high-tech jobs. Further, such a simplistic solution is also the downfall of the idea of green jobs to some critics. In fact, the so-called green jobs are simply a relabeling of blue-collar jobs (Schoeff 2009), an almost robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario. At best, the turn to green jobs is currently a grandiose idea with more style than substance. There must be a better definition for green jobs and a better developed plan for creating and implementing these jobs.

Additionally, "green" has a different meaning when discussed in the context of the economy. Economically, green includes costs, return on investment, and practicality. Therefore, we also argue that in the current job crisis, green jobs should have an additional meaning. Perhaps the only item that should be emphasized more in the United Nations Environment Programme's definition that is usually associated with green issues is the sustainability factor. Now, we do not mean sustainability in regard to natural resources (such meaning is already established in the above definition). We suggest that sustainability should relate to both the market value and availability of such jobs. In other words, green jobs should sustain the workers within this specific sector, both in wages and in longevity.

Economic sustainability should also mean no taxpayer subsidies to support such employment. Regrettably, with the slow economic recovery in the U.S. and the proposed increase in federal taxes on petroleum to reduce government debt, the environment and long-term economic employment in sustainable technologies look mixed. The "Cash for Caulkers" program mentioned above (which is the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act of 2010, or H.R. 5019) would provide $6 billion in taxpayer-funded subsidies to pay for items such as rebates to consumers for improving the energy efficiency of their homes via the installation of energy-efficient windows and doors, better insulation, and caulking (Pelosi n.d.). While the program has all the right "green" catch phrases, in reality it would simply create government-funded jobs (such as the caulking jobs) that will end once the program ends. Because these jobs are not economically sustainable without government subsidies, we would be forced to exclude them from our definition of green jobs.


From the standpoint of the local economy, federal stimulus dollars have trickled down to the University of Memphis, Southwest Tennessee Community College, and other local colleges in the form of educational training in maintenance, engineering, and manufacturing of sustainable technologies such as solar panel and biofuel production. However, there are few jobs available for graduates of these programs in the Mid-South. It is not a matter of whether students can be educated and trained for a career in green jobs, but rather a problem with the lack of green jobs once the students graduate. Capital or stimulus for small businesses with new sustainable products for design or manufacturing is deficient. Although President Obama would like to see educational institutions graduate students who can compete with other countries in science, technology, engineering, and math, there are few new green jobs and a lack of funding for these future sustainable technology innovators. Funding often comes in the form of educational support for designs and not for employment.

One such example is the EPA's 2011 P3: People, Prosperity, and the Planet program. Through this hands-on design competition, student teams and their faculty advisors receive $15,000 grants to design scientific, technical, and policy solutions to sustainability challenges around the world. The EPA will choose the P3 award winners who may receive an additional grant of up to $90,000 to further develop their designs, implement them in the field, and take them to the marketplace. On the surface, such a program sounds like a great educational/ design opportunity, but there are no guarantees of future funding or employment for the students, and future funding and employment are the main purposes of higher education.


In his proposal for passing the stimulus package, President Barack Obama states, "The jobs we create will be in businesses large and small across a wide range of industries. And they'll be the kind of jobs that don't just put people to work in the short term, but position our economy to lead the world in the long term" (Bacon 2009). Policymakers also predicted that many of the new jobs would be so-called green jobs, involving such tasks as retrofitting buildings. This initiative reflects a desire to use some of the stimulus money for innovative projects rather than for improving current infrastructure such as roads (Bacon 2009). However, the largest number of jobs added would be in construction and manufacturing, with more than 678,000 of the new positions being created by public works projects such as road building--a direct contradiction to the policymakers' statement. And, most certainly, 17,000 new green jobs are but a small fraction of the overall four million jobs the government hoped to add to the economy by 2010 (Bacon 2009).

In December 2009, U.S. News and World Report released its 50 best careers list for 2010. This list included a few green jobs such as environmental science and environmental engineering technician. However, these technical careers have broad categories, definitions, and implications for the employee. "In the science and technology field, jobs range from network architect to meteorologist. This category includes the fastest-growing occupation--with a 72 percent growth rate that far outstrips the 10 percent average across careers--of biomedical engineer" (Wolgemuth 2009). Perhaps we should be training more students in biomedical engineering than in sustainable technologies.

Traditionally in a time of economic uncertainty, consumers return to what they know and continue to support the inefficient and highly unsustainable usage patterns of the past. Only a few months ago, the BP Oil disaster had our complete attention, and yet we drive our cars just as much as we did previously because there appears to be no readily available and affordable alternative. Affordability is the key. If the cost is too high, the public will reject any such innovation. Following the most basic economic principles, innovation can only come from public appeal and demand for new sustainable products. For example, renewable energy has a higher price tag than does fossil fuel. Without consumer demand and, more importantly, government intervention, green energy cannot begin to reach its job creation potential (Fletcher 2010).

So, what does this mean for green jobs? Until there is a better and more realistic definition and plan, the potential for true sustainable green jobs will be beyond our reach.


Bacon, Jr., Perry. "Obama: 4 Million New Jobs by 2010." Washington Post, January 11, 2009. (accessed November 30, 2010).

Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Measuring Green Jobs." Green Jobs, November 10, 2010. December 10, 2010).

Environmental Protection Agency. "P3: People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition for Sustainability, 20107' December 10, 2010).

Fletcher, Michael A. "Retrained for Green Jobs, But Still Waiting on Work." Washington Post, November 22, 2010. 2010/11/22/AR2010112207583.html (accessed November 30, 2010).

"House Committee Passes Solis' Green Jobs Act: Bill Will Depare Workers for 'Green Collar Jobs' to Fight Global Warming." June 27, 2007. press/ca32_solis/wida6/greenjobscomm.shtml (accessed November 30, 2010).

Mastrull, Diane. "Creating a Lasting Green Economy; Leanne Krueger-Braneky's Goal Is to Create Jobs That Pay Well and Are Long-Term." The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 3, 2009. viewiStockNews/articleid/3215521 (accessed November 10, 2010.).

Meigs, James B. "The Ethanol Fallacy: Op-Ed." Popular Mechanics, December 18, 2009. Accessed November 22, 2010. alternative-fuel/biofuels/4237539.

Mufson, Steven. "The Green Machine: Promoting the Future, Van Jones Has No Shortage of Energy." Washington Post, December 9, 2008. wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/08/AR2008120803569_pf.html (accessed November 10, 2010).

Pelosi, Nancy. "Home Star Jobs." Current Legislation, n.d. (accessed December 10, 2009).

Pepitone, Julianne. "Obama Unveils $2.3 Billion for Clean Energy Jobs.", January 8, 2010. http:// manufacturing_jobs/index.htm (accessed November 10, 2010).

Schoeff, Jr., Mark. "Critics Take Less than Rosy View of Push for Green Jobs." Workforce Management, May 18, 2009. 12347805-1.html (accessed November 10, 2010).

United Nations Environment Programme. Green Jobs: Towards Decent Work in a Sustainable, Low-Carbon World. Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, 2008.

Wolgemuth, Liz. "America's Best Careers 2010: Science and Technology." U.S. News and World Report, December 28, 2009. 2009/12/28/the-50-best-careers-of-2010.html (accessed November 18, 2010).

Wynn, Gerard. "U.S. Corn-Based Ethanol 'Was Not a Good Policy'--Gore." Reuters, November 22, 2010. idAFLDE6ALOYT201011227sp=true (accessed November 22,2010).

by Juliann Waits, PhD, Assistant Professor--Natural Sciences and Adjunct Professor--Ecological Research Center, Southwest Tennessee Community College, Jeff Wallace, PhD, Economist and Research Associate Professor of Applied Economic Research, and Stephen Smith, Research Associate II/Editor, Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research, The University of Memphis

Juliann Waits, PhD

Dr. Juliann Waits is an Assistant Professor of Natural Sciences at Southwest Tennessee Community College (STCC) and is an active member of the STCC Green Committee. She is an Adjunct Professor with the Department of Biology in the Ecological Research Center at the University of Memphis. She has substantial experience in environmental and evolutionary ecology, population genetics, and biostatistics. She received her PhD in Environmental and Evolutionary Ecology from the University of Louisiana--Lafayette in 2002.

Jeff Wallace, PhD

Dr. Jeff Wallace is an Economist and Research Associate Professor of Applied Economic Research at the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Memphis. He has been in this position since 1994. Dr. Wallace specializes in economic impact studies, having most recently completed an economic impact study of the University of Tennessee's College of Pharmacy (2006-2007), a study of the economic impact of Baptist Memorial Health Care Corporation (2005), and the economic impact of Memphis International Airport (2005). Dr. Wallace also has substantial experience in tax revenue forecasting, government fiscal analysis, survey research, labor market analysis, product-market pricing analysis, state labor training program evaluation, and other state and local government program evaluations.

Stephen Smith

Stephen Smith serves as both Research Associate II and Editor at the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Memphis. He has been with the Bureau since 1994. Mr. Smith earned a MA in English from the University of Memphis. Currently, he is completing his doctoral studies in English with a major in Professional Writing. His study and professional backgrounds include classical rhetoric, rhetoric of science, visual rhetoric, technical communication, and layout and design.
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Author:Waits, Juliann; Wallace, Jeff; Smith, Stephen
Publication:Business Perspectives
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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